Forget Me Not

Is the appeal of the “right to be forgotten” more about anonymity or control?

May 31, 2016

Joseph Janes

Over the past few days, I’ve been cleaning out my home office. (Oh, the lengths one will go to avoid writing.) It’s not quite a herculean task, though at times I felt as though I might be approaching Augean stables levels. In the process, I’ve been sorting through a lot of accumulated … let’s call it memorabilia: family things, trip souvenirs, old birthday cards. Just about every decision, to keep or part with, brought back memories, some difficult, mostly pleasant. A tear or two was shed, along with many more smiles.

A few days ago brought a minor news item describing refinements Google has made to the process to request the removal of links in search results that are “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant,” popularly known as the “right to be forgotten,” in response to a 2014 ruling by the European Court of Justice.

Ever since the first time I heard it, that phrase has stuck. It has a resonance, even for people who don’t actually know what it means or those who have to worry about unflattering social media or mass media items. But it sounds … important. Even a bit grand. And when The New Yorker publishes an article titled “The Solace of Oblivion,” you know they’ve bought in.

Without going into the actual details of the specific things Google is and isn’t doing, let’s think about this more generally. Few of us actually want to be forgotten completely—notwithstanding the occasional person who wants to live off the grid (tinfoil hat optional).

By the same token, most of us have something in our background we’d just as soon didn’t get dredged up. With the rise of awareness about the persistence of memory on the internet, many people have gotten smarter, or at least more selective, about posting compromising pictures or boneheaded tweets, entertaining though those can be for the rest of us. And yet, the notion of being able to pluck an unhappy memory out of the collective and perhaps permanent consciousness can be attractive.

I think the appeal and allure of the “right to be forgotten” is less about the right to be forgotten and more about control. The ability to control how we are represented, how we are seen, and eventually how we are to be remembered. And this isn’t a new, internet-engendered phenomenon. Poison-pen letters, gossip, malicious things of all descriptions are as old as the hills, as is the desire to be thought well of, deservedly or not.

However, as custodians of the record of what has been, this is something we should be extremely wary of. We would robustly resist attempts to censor materials because somebody finds them offensive to their faith or beliefs. Would we do the same if somebody found them personally unflattering or “untrue”?

It’s fine to want to set the record straight, and the way to do that is with more speech and writing, not less. Otherwise it becomes the ability to control who gets to say what about us and who else gets to read or hear us, and down that road lies the strangulation of free speech and the corruption or bastardization of the human record, much of which lies in our care.

So while this sounds like a fine idea, ultimately it’s not. Because if the record is to mean anything, now and in the future, it has to have integrity, intactness, trustworthiness, and that can’t be the case if individual people have the opportunity or right or authority to pick and choose and prune and primp the way they are portrayed. This requires faith that the true will eventually overcome the false, warts and all, and without that, what have we got?

I’m writing this on a bright early spring afternoon, watching the Tampa Bay Rays play in Havana as President Obama looks on during his trip to Cuba, following the morning’s dreadful news about bomb attacks in Brussels. Two juxtaposed events that, in quite different ways, invite contemplation on the importance of remembering, or at least choosing not to forget … but that’s another story.


Sari Feldman

Gaining Insight

Year as ALA president has been transformative

Teneka Williams

Inclusivity in Any Library

How we can improve accessibility